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The K of D: An Urban Legend
by Laura Schellhardt
Directed by Tom Martin
Blue Rose Stage Collective
October 16, 2014

Em Piro Photo by Todd Heilman Blue Rose Stage Collective

Em Piro
Photo by Todd Heilman
Blue Rose Stage Collective

“Who has a ghost story?’  Director Tom Martin asked audience members to share their own spooky stories while gathered around a campfire before the beginning of Blue Rose Stage Collective’s latest production, a one-woman show called The K of D: An Urban Legend. Staged in an environment that lends very well to the story at hand and featuring a very welcome return to the stage by Em Piro, this is a successful slice-of-life story with a slightly creepy edge that serves as an excellent lead-in to the Halloween season.

After a few minutes of audience-contributed stories, Piro chimes in with “I got one”, and then jumps right into the performance, which tells a fascinating tale that’s part horror show, part coming-of-age dramedy.  The story follows young Charlotte and her gang of friends in semi-rural Ohio.  All sorts of strange events occur after Charlotte’s twin brother, Jamie, is killed by a car driven by local bully Johnny Whistler.  Just before he dies, Jamie gives Charlotte a kiss, which leads to her developing an unusual power.  Thus ensues “The Summer of the Death”, as the gang’s would-be ring leader, Quisp, calls it, and what unfolds is a mixture of episodes and anecdotes in the lives of Charlotte, her parents, and her friends as they deal with Jamie’s death, new neighbor Johnny’s intimidation, and strange events happening around the lake where the kids like to hang out. Is that new heron that flies around near the lake just a bird, or is it something more? And what about the animals that keep turning up dead? The answers to these questions lie in the richly-scripted story brought to life in Piro’s animated performance.

Apparently, this show was originally performed in a more traditional stage setting, although the way it’s performed here seems simply ideal.  Pairing the performance with an informal, nostalgic campfire setting is a stroke of genius from director Tom Martin and Piro.  In a backyard setting of an unassuming house called “The Revisionist Inn” on Cherokee Street, audience members are invited to enjoy hot cider, cheap beer, roasted marshmallows and homemade cherry cobbler as they gather in folding chairs around the fire.  The play takes place on a rough wooden stage with a deceptively simple setup including a wind machine, shadow box and simple but striking lighting by Mark Wilson, and an atmospheric soundtrack by Billy Croghan, performed by Croghan and Gavin Duffy. All these elements work together well to provide a fully immersive theatrical experience. Audience members don’t just show up and watch a play.  They are brought into the action through the excellent use of location and atmosphere, and also through Piro’s dynamic performance.

Piro is better known these days as the mastermind behind St. Lou Fringe, but this performance is a reminder of how great an actress she is.  It’s been 3 years since she took to the stage, and it’s been too long. She’s a wonderful performer, taking on multiple roles with seemingly boundless energy, clearly defining the different characters with instant changes in voice and posture. Through Piro’s skilled portrayals, we get to meet shy young Charlotte, brash Quisp, snarky Steffi, protective Trent and talkative Brett, Charlotte’s parents, menacing Johnny, and more.  With a skilled sense of timing, Piro manages to hold the stage for about two hours while maintaining her energy and pacing. The show is never boring, the story moves very quickly, and the quick shifts in character are never confusing.  I’m notoriously squeamish when it comes to horror stories, but this turned out to be the kind I like–more story than horror, and Piro has proven to be a consummate storyteller in bringing to life Laura Schellhardt’s excellent script.

The K of D strikes me as a perfect project for Piro, actually, since it has the feel of a full-length Fringe production.  She, Martin, and the rest of their crew have managed to bring a very experimental, home-grown air to this production that works incredibly well.  It’s sure to bring back memories of childhood, local legends and campfire stories, with just the right mixture of realism and ghostly creepiness that makes the best urban legends so fascinating.  It’s a supreme blend of material and presentation with only one weekend left in its run.  Go ahead, grab some cider and roast some marshmallows, pull up a chair and allow yourself to be transported. It’s a real treat.

Em Piro Photo by Todd Heilman Blue Rose Stage Collective

Em Piro
Photo by Todd Heilman
Blue Rose Stage Collective

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So, I went to the Fringe last weekend. The St. Lou Fringe, that is. It’s the biggest theatre festival in St. Louis, having just finished its second year under the direction of  Executive Director Em Piro and a large crew of staff and volunteers, involving many local theatre companies and some from around the country, as well as dance, live music, after parties, family activities and more.  There was a lot going on in Midtown, but I only managed to see a small portion of it. One of the thoughts I had after attending was that I wish it were bigger, and with all the creative energy and enthusiasm of all involved I’m sure it eventually will be. Still, for an event only two years into its life, it’s an impressive venture, with many different acts on a schedule spread out over four days in Midtown.

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I only managed to see five shows this year, but I was able to see such a variety of styles on display in just those few shows.  The quality of the performances and the overall atmosphere makes me want to see even more shows at the festival next year, and maybe attend a workshop or after party.  There’s so much to do at the Fringe for all ages, and it was fun to participate even in a small way.  Here are my thoughts on the shows I saw:

Total Nonsense

by Joey Puricelli and Zach Paule

Directed by Joey Puricelli

Grand High Productions

This production was the least polished of the shows I saw at the Fringe. The title is descriptive, as there was very little sense and a lot of rapid-fire jokes, some landing and some not.  That’s part of the nature of experimental theatre, though, and there were some interesting, funny things going on here.   The cast, led by co-author Joey Puricelli as Skitz O. Frenic, whose house and mind are the setting for the action, made a good effort and displayed a strong sense of enthusiasm, even though some volume and enunciation issues occasionally made some of the dialogue unintelligible (and this doesn’t count the intentional gibberish that is part of the performance). I especially liked the use of music in the scene breaks. Overall, it was an interesting performance with a plot that’s difficult to describe, but performed by an enthusiastic ensemble.

Underneath the Lintel

By Glen Berger

Pat O’Brien’s Vanity Theatrics

This performance, a one-man show performed by actor O’Brien with more energy than I could have imagined, was a delight from start to finish.  Well-written, perfectly paced, impeccably researched and organized, the production tells the story of as a socially awkward, Dutch librarian who undertakes a life-changing quest when he becomes obsessed with finding the person who turned in an extremely (100+ years) overdue library book. This remarkable play made excellent use of slides from around the world and recorded music to establish the mood and tone of the story.  Issues of relationship, love, religion and regret are dealt with along this fascinating journey, and I continue to be amazed at the sheer range of O’Brien’s remarkable performance.  This was a real treat.

No Stopping, No Warping, No Dying

By Ed Krystoek

Directed by Peter Connor

1up Productions

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I walked into the space for this performance as “ABC” by the Jackson 5 played over the sound system, in a bouncy instrumental version deliberately arranged to sound like it came from an  8-bit video game console.  The 8-bit video game-style music enhanced the performance and included various popular songs from Lady Gaga and others.  There was a clever set that resembled a giant Nintendo system that folded out to serve alternately as a couch, two chairs and a bed. This production told a compelling story that follows two childhood friends identified only as Player 1 (Charles Azkenaizer) and Player 2 (Gannon Reedy), who bond over video games, and Super Mario Bros. in particular.  The play follows the two players as they grow up, attend college, and encounter the various challenges of adult life, all the while constantly re-visiting their video game addiction while dealing life issues including religion, romance, jealousy, parenthood, responsibility and mortality. The performances were thoroughly believable and both actors displayed a genuine sense of friendship throughout the challenges presented in the show.  This was a truly heartwarming production that featured moments of real humor as well as some intense drama.

This is a Play

By Daniel MacIvor

Directed by Mark Kelley

R-S Theatrics

Hilarious, spot-on send-up of theatrical conventions, as three actors (Casey Boland, Beth Wickenhauser and Kirsten Wylder) put on an intentionally incomprehensible, derivative play about love, loss and lettuce while narrating their thoughts as actors. This truly hilarious production has a lot of appeal for theatre geeks like me, with its references to the dynamics of the actors’ relationships to each other, the creatives and the material itself, with mentions of such varied figures in performing arts as Tennessee Williams, Uta Hagen and Robert Pattinson. The production is spot-on in dealing with issues of differing acting styles, image and ego, technique, popularity, technical details and all aspects of producing a play. This was a delightful production with excellent comic work from all three players, and anyone who has ever been in a play would especially be able to relate.

I am My Own Militia, or Mea’s Unique Garage Sale

by Joel Henning Doty

Directed by Keaton Treece

JHD Productions

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This thought-provoking, funny, engaging piece about a young girl’s struggles to make sense of modern society made clever use of various interactive elements (props handed out, texting) to enhance the performance and add to the overall atmosphere.  It follows the story of Mea (Sofia Murillo), a teenage girl who feels outcast from society, on her quest to understand her world and figure out which path to follow and who to listen to. Audience members with cell phones were further immersed in the story through the use of text messages sent during the show, ostensibly from characters in the play.  These texts in particular helped advance the story in a compelling way. Slowly, the various characters act as influences on Mea’s life,  the plot develops and you eventually see what’s going on.  It was fascinating to watch and ultimately very moving, with strong performances all around, especially by Murillo, who held the stage admirably, portraying all the character’s conflicting emotions and loneliness, as well as her strong personality, and made the audience genuinely care about her situation.  It felt like a fully integrated 21st century presentation, and I was honored to experience it.

St. Lou Fringe Executive Director Em Piro

St. Lou Fringe Executive Director Em Piro

Overall, I would say the Fringe is more than an enjoyable weekend, and even the word “success” seems inadequate.  It’s more than a success. It’s a living, growing, vibrant work-in-progress that celebrates not only the arts, but the revitalization of Midtown St. Louis as well.  I look forward to seeing what’s in store for next year.

For more information about St. Lou Fringe, check out the link to their website in the sidebar of this blog. 

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You Can’t Take It With You

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

September 23, 2010


You Can’t Take It With You, the classic American comedy by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, is currently being brought to glorious life at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

It was fun staying after for the post-show discussion with the cast, and some really good points were raised there about this show’s role in the evolution of American “sitcom” humor.  It does kind of remind me of old-style sitcoms in a way, particularly with some of the physical comedy and joke-a-minute humor.  Another point that was raised was that, while a lot of modern sitcoms seem to be about dysfunctional families, the family portrayed here is very functional despite being unconventional.  Everyone loves and accepts each other, encouraging each other to chase their dreams and do what they love rather than pursuing a career for the sake of money or status.

The family centers around patriarch Martin Vanderhof (Joneal Joplin), who is called Grandpa by pretty much everyone.  Grandpa is a gentle but commanding presence in the middle of his unorthodox family, which includes wannabe playwright Penny (Carol Schultz), her fireworks-happy husband Paul (Tony Campisi) and their daughters–the free-spirit would-be dancer Essie (Stephanie Cozart), and the more seemingly “normal” Alice (Amelia McClain).  It is when Alice starts seeing Tony (Benjamin Eakely), the son of her wealthy boss, that complications arise in spectacular fashion.

The players in this production, ably directed by Steven Woolf, all work together and form a tight, cohesive ensemble.  The chemistry between all the actors is palpable, as the comic energy is built in how the characters play off of each other.  I especially liked the chemistry between Cozart as Essie and Jamie LaVerdiere as her sweetly goofy musician/printer husband, Ed.  Also, McClain and Eakeley made a charming pair as well–convincingly portraying the excitement of young love.  McClain also did a fine job of imbuing the character of Alice with enough neurotic energy to make it believable that she, despite being the most conventional of her clan, actually belongs in this family.  There are also some nice turns by Susie Wall as the drunken actress Gay Wellington, and by Jeffrey Hayenga and Barbara Kingsley as Mr. and Mrs. Kirby, Tony’s bewildered upper-crust parents.  Kingsley is also to be singled out for her fine dual portrayal of both Mrs. Kirby and exiled Russian Grand Duchess Olga Katrina, and St. Louis veteran actor Joplin is a solid anchor to the production as Grandpa.

This play was written in the late 1930s and is so tied to its time that it can only really be played today as a period piece, and the period elements of this production are excellently done.  The elaborate, beautifully decorated set by John Ezell and the costumes by Elizabeth Covey (Grand Duchess Olga’s outfit, in particular, is a whimsical work of art) add to the the 1930s flavor of the show, as do the occasional moments of 1930s music that are played throughout the production.  Never having experienced this time period first-hand, I was nevertheless made to feel like I had been there.

Still, despite the vivid recreation of time and place, the show does not feel dated.  Many of the play’s themes–such as conventionality vs. unconventionality, government intervention in people’s private lives, and struggles to get along despite differences in economic status, politics, and overall outlook on life, as well as the tension between following one’s dreams vs. doing one’s “duty for society”–still resonate today.  Also, the portrayals are so rich and vibrant that it feels like a family like this could actually exist, and just like so many of their guests who visit once and decide to stay, I felt like I wanted to spend more time with this wonderfully strange, loving and accepting family.

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It’s summer, and in St. Louis that means it’s Muny time!  (Complete with cheesy TV commercials!)

The Muny is a St. Louis tradition that is somewhat hard to explain to people who haven’t been there.  In one way, it’s easy—it’s an outdoor theatre that shows seven large-scale musicals every summer, and they do a lot of their casting in New York, which means that many of the performers are Broadway and touring veterans, from Tony winners like Randy Graff (Hello Dolly, 2006), to touring favorites like Eric Kunze (who has been in several Muny productions and who stars as Joe Hardy in Damn Yankees this year), and rising stars like 2010 Tony nominee Kate Baldwin, who has been in five shows at the Muny—most recently last year when she played Marian in The Music Man.  They usually put on well-known, crowd-pleasing shows that draw thousands every year to their large outdoor venue in Forest Park, just a few blocks from our house.

That’s the easy part to explain.  The hard part to describe is the whole atmosphere of the place, which is a large part of what makes it such a beloved St. Louis institution despite its drawbacks (which I will also try to explain).   The Muny is an experience.  It’s not just about going to a show.  It’s about going to a show with a picnic dinner and sitting in the grass surrounded by hundreds of others before the show, taking in the live pre-show entertainment provided by various local acts.  It’s also about lining up for ice cream and popcorn at the concession stands, and sitting down in the huge stadium-like outdoor auditorium while huge fans buzz overhead on hot days before the show.  It’s also about rising for the National Anthem before the show like at a baseball game, but unlike at most sporting events, the vast majority of the thousands of people in attendance actually sing—at the top of their lungs.  It’s also about watching possums run back and forth in the lighting rigs, sometimes during the show.  And because it’s outdoors and the stage is so huge, it’s about special features like an actual helicopter flying over for Miss Saigon (2008), and real fireworks at the end of Meet Me in St. Louis (2004). The stage is so big that colossal productions like Les Miserables (2007) actually have to have larger casts than Broadway.  Also, the outdoor setting and the stage backed by real trees adds an interesting element to the sets.  And then, there are the free seats in the back, which have an atmosphere of their own.

I mentioned drawbacks, and there are a few.  First, the schedule tends to get repetitive.   There are certain shows (like Cats, Annie, My Fair Lady, and The Sound of Music) that seem to be on a perpetual five year cycle.  If you go to the Muny long enough you are guaranteed to see many repeated shows.  My family and I moved to St. Louis in 2004, and we’ve already seen them repeat quite a few shows, like The Music Man, Meet Me in St. Louis and Annie, and this year they have already repeated Beauty and the Beast, and will be repeating The Sound of Music and Cats. Next year’s season is bound to bring a few more repeats from the previous 5-6 years, as well.  There are classic shows such as Carousel that have not been performed at the Muny in over 20 years, because the Muny has a voting system.  Every year they pass out surveys and the audience members vote for the shows they want to see.  This results in many repeats and a few debuts of newer favorites like The Producers (2008) and Hairspray (last year), but also often results in some well-known classics being overlooked and more obscure shows being ignored, with occasional exceptions such the the excellent 2007 production of The Pajama Game, which hadn’t been performed at the Muny since 1968.   This also often precludes productions of some of the edgier or grittier shows like Sweeney Todd and Rent.

Still, despite the drawbacks, the Muny is well-loved fixture of summers in St. Louis, and we always try to see at least some of the shows every year.  This year, we plan on seeing Titanic, Damn Yankees and Show Boat. We have seen some first-rate productions, as well as some less-than-great ones, but it’s always an experience, and it’s one you can only get in St. Louis.

http://www.muny.org/

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So, for many years many people have told me “Michelle, you should start a blog”, because I like to write, and I guess people think I’m good at it.  I also love theatre, both musical and non-musical, and I’ve always thought it would be fun to write a blog about the shows I see, as well as my general thoughts about theatre.  Well, at long last, here it is!

Just by way of explanation, here are some things you should know:

1. “Snoop” comes from a name I have used on various message boards for many years.  The “Snoop” part does not come from the rapper (Snoop Dogg), but from Snoopy, the Peanuts comic strip dog, because I’ve loved Snoopy for as long as I can remember.  It has gotten to the point where several of my online friends just call me “Snoop” instead of my real name, so I figured I should carry it over to this blog, because it’s fun.

2. As the blog title says, I do not claim to be an expert in theatre.  The closest thing to formal training I have is four years of drama class in high school, and one playwriting class in college.  I have a smattering of experience in various areas of amateur theatre, but mostly I’m just an avid fan.  I love to see plays, and I love to read, talk and write about plays and performers.

3.  The opinions expressed in this blog are my own, based on my years of being a major theatre geek.  The level of my geekdom has waxed and waned over the years, but it’s in full swing right now and I’m excited to finally get this blog going so I can have an outlet for my thoughts.

4. I will try to write reviews of all the shows I see, whether in St. Louis or elsewhere.  I will also be sharing my opinions on various theatre-related topics, and maybe a few other random things as well–but mostly having to do with theatre in some way.

5. My interests run the gamut from high-brow to low-brow to everything in between.  From Shakespeare and Sondheim to Andrew Lloyd Webber to original shows thrown together by a bunch of college students (see A Very Potter Musical, below).  I do not like everything (Cats and High School Musical, this means you), but I like things of all levels, both well-known and obscure, and I always love discovering new shows and performers.

6. I will share links to videos of performances I like.  I have lots of favorite performers and shows, and I will post my favorite videos as the whim strikes me.  Like now (hints of blog entries to come!)

There.  I think that’s it.  So, this is my blog, for better or worse.  Whoever reads it, I hope you enjoy!

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